Dirigo Rataplan-- Devin Gray Quartet

Credit must go to the Baltimore connection for the tight cohesiveness displayed by drummer Devin Gray's quartet on his debut release as a leader. Gray met bassist Michael Formanek while studying at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, where Formanek teaches. Trumpeter Dave Ballou teaches at Towson University near Baltimore, but actually first met a youthful Gray at a jazz camp years ago in Gray's native Maine. Tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin grew up in Baltimore, and hooked up with the other three for gigs in both Baltimore and New York, where Gray now resides. Eskelin has led close to 20 CDs, while Ballou and Formanek have produced nine each. Formanek has long been associated with Tim Berne, and has also recorded previously with Ballou, while Eskelin is perhaps best known for his work with Joey Baron and for his trio with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black. Gray's eight compositions on this CD were written with these veteran progressive jazz artists in mind.

"Quadraphonically" is launched by Gray's cleverly stuttering start-and-stop drumming, which serves as an effective contrast to the more languid theme voicings of Ballou and Eskelin. This in turn leads to the distinctive contrapuntal (or quadraphonic) interaction of each quartet member. The revisiting of the theme brings out its Ornette Coleman/Don Cherry derivations, especially with Formanek's Charlie Haden-like ostinato and Ballou's intonations reminiscent of Cherry. "Cancel the Cancel" contains a deceptively simple, yet satisfyingly logical thematic arc, offering fertile ground for the whirlwind simultaneous and complementary improvisations of Ballou and Eskelin. The mood is quietly seething, with Formanek's booming single notes rising to the top layer as the piece slowly dissolves into thin air.

The floating lighthearted melody of "Down Time" is enticing, especially with Formanek's persistently buoyant bass patterns as a foundation. Ballou's extended solo is typical of him--lyrical, confidently building, and played with a well-rounded appealing tone. Formanek and Gray are in encouraging lock-step with him all the way. Eskelin's following tenor solo is not nearly as legato in its thrust, instead absorbingly utilizing space and more staccato phrasings that feature both concise swirls and longer lines. The bassist and drummer are as equally responsive to his musings as they were to Ballou's. The reprise is approached more free-form, providing a refreshingly different perspective. Long tones and mallets create a brooding opening for "Prospect Park in the Dark," a tribute to Charles Ives. A contrapuntal free dialogue by the foursome then ensues. The track as a whole is a spellbinding success, with it ending much as it began, except for a delicately nuanced interlude by Gray, first on cymbals and then on sticks.

The staccato theme of "Talking with Hands" is deftly handled by tenor and trumpet with Gray's forceful accentuations. The explorations in counterpoint by Ballou and Eskelin are lucid and compelling, gradually intensifying prior to a brief return to the prodding opening. "Otaku" begins spacy and rubato, highlighted by Ballou's and Eskelin's intriguing, interwoven lines of thought, primarily mellow until Formanek's adamant interjections instigates an edgier, more urgent mindset. Gray's variegated drum work helps sustain the trumpeter's and saxophonist's creative drives.

"Thickets" is dedicated to drummer Gerald Cleaver, who has mentored Gray and has also recorded with Formanek. Sustained tones and arco bass lead first to Eskelin's chattering improv, and then to Ballou's chirping, nervous statement. Tenor and trumpet then merge voices in a manner bordering on the telepathic. The contemplative, ethereal close brings the selection full circle. A whimsical air pervades the catchy melody of "Katahdin," as enunciated by Ballou and Eskelin. Ballou's elastic, dissonance-laden solo, however, is serious business. Formanek and Gray combine their talents in determined support of Ballou, as well as for Eskelin's similarly probing improv. The reiteration of the theme brings this fascinating CD to a sublime end.

As for the CD's title, "dirigo" (which is Maine's state motto) is Latin for direct or lead, while "rataplan" is French for the beating of hooves or drums. Hence, leading from the beat.

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Scott Albin